Day one of a two-day virtual conference, Equity Amid Crisis, kicked off Thursday morning to lay the foundation for viewing the world through a lens of equity.
Hundreds of participants gathered via Zoom to hear local leaders discuss topics related to systemic racism, equity and COVID-19, in the context of the recent weeks of protest that have spread around the world, calling for justice for George Floyd and an end to police brutality.
The first day brought together business and nonprofit leaders on three distinct panels, to discuss equity in general terms, lay the foundation of where Pinellas County is now in terms of equity, and define the gaps in the societal infrastructure related to equity. Panelists also discussed the ways in which COVID-19 has laid bare the broken systems in the community.
Unite Pinellas CEO Tim Dutton shared data surrounding the treatment of black, Asian and Native American residents of Pinellas County, as compared to white residents. The results show a distinct disparity, in areas of housing, access to education, criminal justice and health. In one major category, criminal justice, the disparities are distinct.
In Pinellas County, black and Native American defendants are more likely than white defendants to be charged with resisting arrest as their only offense. In fact, 9 percent of misdemeanor referrals for black defendants consist only of resisting arrest, while that figure is just 4 percent for white defendants. According to Measures for Justice, this matters because the charge of resisting arrest often reflects systemic differences in policing white communities versus policing black communities and may reflect the officers implicit bias.
Dutton also shared that black defendants are more likely than white or asian defendants, convicted of the same nonviolent felonies to serve time in prison. In Pinellas County, 24 percent of black defendants convicted of a nonviolence felony received a prison sentence, while only 17 percent of white defendants received a prison sentence.
The Digital Divide
St. Pete Innovation District Executive Director Alison Barlow discussed a project that the Innovation District had been working to address months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck: The digital divide. The digital divide is the disparity between those who have access to online technology and those who don’t.
Barlow recently received word that her organization’s work in digital inclusion was awarded grant funding by the Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund.
Digital inclusion, Barlow said, came to the forefront as society sheltered in place and moved schooling, work, civic meetings, health care and other services online.
Access to the online world has four major components. The first is reliable internet access, which Barlow said 19 percent of St. Petersburg does not have. In the South St. Petersburg Community Revitalization Area (CRA), that number jumps to 28 percent.
The second is access to proper devices such as tablets or laptops, not just smartphones, that allow users to fill out applications, work from home or attend school. Barlow said that 12 percent of St. Pete residents do not have access to these devices, and in the South St. Pete CRA, that number jump to 17 percent.
The third component necessary for access is technical training that allows people to use the devices they have in an effective way, to do simple things such as using Zoom or Microsoft Teams, or to engage with telehealth.
Finally, access means having a resource to turn to for technical support when things go wrong.
The digital divide is not pandemic-specific, Barlow said, particularly for a community like St. Petersburg in which hurricanes are such a large concern. “We need systemic changes to fix this,” Barlow said.
Brother John Muhammad, Executive Director of the Community Development and Training Center, is providing a digital lending library in the Childs Park community, where residents can check out a computer or a tablet in the same way you would check out a book or DVD from a library.
Muhammad has also started a digital literacy campaign. Muhammad, who works from home, spent the last two months of the school year helping to educate his three grandchildren at home, while the women of his household went to their essential jobs. He said there was a major learning curve for parents and grandparents to access programs like Microsoft Teams, and gaps in the educational support system.
Muhammad also said that the digital divide creates gaps in digital entrepreneurship, something he has seen change lives in the community.
Dr. LaDonna Butler, founder and executive director of The Well for Life, said digital inclusion and literacy also bring an uptick in the use of digital mental health services, and an opportunity for connection in a time of physical distancing.
Day two of the Equity Amid Crisis Conference begins Friday morning with self-care activities including Zumba, yoga and meditation. Day two programming will focus on solutions and the way forward, toward equity, for the St. Petersburg community.